Malagalage Don Gunasena was a mere school boy at Wesley College when he first peered in fascination through the windows, as the rolling wheels of the huge Wharfdale machines were moving to churn out sheets of printed matter in the presses on Dam Street. Even while in school, he ran errands for the printers just to get closer look at the printing presses.
His father Malagalage Don Carolis Peiris Appuhami and mother Galpotte Kankanamalage Sophaya Perera Hamine belonged to a paddy farming family from Wewala, SalpitiKorale. Malagalage Don Gunasena the youngest son in a family of three, began his education in Wewala Government School in the village. His parents sent him to Wesley College to learn English under British rule. Soon after, the family fortunes changed and the parents could not afford the luxury of giving him, an English education. The boy was compelled to leave school when he was in fourth standard and took up Ayurveda, under a Veda Mahattya in Grandpass.
At this time his elder brother was running a small grocery in Colombo. Seeing young Gunasena’s futile efforts over the study of ancient Pali and Sanskrit, he suggested that it was time for his younger brother to learn a trade. It was then that Gunasena requested that he be sent to the Boys’ Industrial Home attached to the Wesley Press. Following his boyhood fascination, it is there that he mastered the art of printing. Destiny had been made and there was no turning back.
The young qualified printer immediately joined H.S. Perera to help the Dinaminaat the Lanka Abhihawa Visrutha Press owned by Pundit Robert Batuwanthudawa. Subsequently the press was handed over to his Son-in-law Sir Baron Jayatilaka. Gunasena mastered the art of setting up type and further sharpened his printing skills, until he was forced to return to Wewala due to a bout of illness.
On his return to Colombo he sought an opening at the Government Press with a letter of introduction from Pundit Thomas Karunaratne, only to be told that the Government Printer – Mr.Cotton had left to England. With no job, he was at his boarding on Green Street, when a friend informed him of a vacancy for a compositor. He joined Sir Harry Van Cuylenberg’s Independent Newspaper at Hulftsdorp, where he earned his first salary. Ironically, 30 years later, he bought the same premises and it became home to Independent Newspapers Limited, an associate Company of M.D.GUNASENA’s, which shut down in 1990.
His adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit always found him looking for better prospects. He later worked as the manager for Wijewickremage John Appuhami’s Victor press on Dias Place. Here he played the role of salesman, canvasser, bill collector, designer and printer. As a salesman he use to start of early to visit many establishments to obtain printing jobs from customers and return to the office at around 10 a.m. Assuming that Gunasena was habitually late, he was reprimanded. The honourable young Gunasena immediately tendered his resignation. A week later Appuhami apologised on behalf of his poor judgment and asked him to return to work. Gunasena refused; as he had made up his mind, never again to work under anybody.
Appuhami then proposed that Gunasena buy the press but then again he declined, as he did not have the money. Then Appuhami suggested that he was willing to accept the payment on installments. Gunasena agreed and this was the defining moment way back in 1913.
With determination complemented by hard work, Gunasena surged forward. Success and progress came quickly and he was able to buy additional secondhand machinery from N.S. Fernando and company. He installed the new machinery on First Cross Street, in Pettah, in 1917 and named it New Victor Press. Two years later he relocated to Fifth Cross Street.
At 29 he married Lilian Senehelatha Perera from Grandpass on the 30th of November 1922. As the press expanded, he borrowed more funds from the Chettiars(local money lenders) of Sea Street to meet working expenses, as banks did not lend to small-time Sinhala businessmen. When the Japanese paper supplier, Kiichi Ensha, whom Gunasena took on as a partner in 1919, expressed concern over his debts in 1925, he cancelled the partnership, paying him in full.
In 1925, he expanded the business with new machinery and staff, relocating it to Fifth Cross Street. The business being his alone, he named it M.D.GUNASENA AND COMPANY. This same year the company ventured into book publishing with sales and distribution handled by K.D. Perera & Sons, J.D. Fernando & Company and W.E. Bastian & Company. In 1926 Gunasena acquired a small firm of Book publishers named C.Boteju & Company on Dam Street. Armed with stocks and a few copyrights the company began to operate as a bookseller.
In 1929 the business expanded rapidly and the company was relocated to Norris Road (Olcott Mawatha), its current headquarters. The bookshop operation was carried out from Olcott Mawatha, the printing happened in the middle of the premises and the wholesale operation was at the rear, opening out to Maliban Street.
At that time the Company was at the forefront of the Publishing Industry. Many prestigious titles from renown authors like, Martin Wickramasinghe; Professor Gunapala Malalasekera, V.D. de Lanerolle, Dr. E.W. Adikaram, and Munidasa Kumaratunga were and continue to be published by the company.
Gunasena’s nephews both M.D. Sirisena and M.D. Premadasa joined the business in 1932 and grew the business exponentially. In 1942 the property was purchased from Helena Jayewardene mother of the former President of Sri Lanka J.R. Jayawerdene. In 1945 the company was registered as a limited liability company.
In 1949 artist G.S.Fernando created the famous logo. The scribe in the logo is a representation of Gurulugomi the author of Amawatura and Dharmapradipika written in the 12th Century. The logo was first used in Martin Wickramasinghe’s Sahityodaya Katha book published in the same year, 1949. Ever since that the logo has become the symbol of quality literature in the country.
By 1959, the company was publishing almost 300 titles a year virtually a book a day. The same year the company reopened the doors of its new building at Olcott Mawatha. The spacious state of the art multi storied bookstore was the second largest bookstore in the world with the other being in Helsinki built a year earlier. Ever since that day we never looked back but surged forward to become the market leaders in the fields of Publishing, Printing and Bookselling.
This is the story of the humble beginnings of our company. It is the Founder’s vision, corporate values and the innovative spirit that continue steer this company forward. We believe and it has been widely accepted that, “We Taught the Nation to Read.“